Generation of a useful customised identity instrument


Tackling an 'impossible' task

The impossibility of assessing the entirety of anyone's identity based in the totality of a person's biographical experiences would seem to make the task of generating a useful identity instrument a complete non-starter. In practice, the task is not as daunting as it first appears, since people's identity processes have certain coherences (revealed as 'stories' about one's experiences and activities), even when chaos in one's life appears to be the norm (... another story!). If we accept that a person's identity is structured in some manner, which will invariably differ in detail from another person's, then the rationale for generating a useful identity instrument is to determine the principal features of that structure. This obviates the need to go into all of the details, since these will be subsumed by the principal features. By delineating such structural features as broad outlines of a person's identity, it then becomes possible to focus in to the particular concerns of a specific investigation, provided always that the broad outlines remain visible and provide the context for the detailed concerns.

Pragmatic considerations when generating customised identity instruments

Evidently no identity instrument could conceivably encompass all of the intricate details of any person's identity in totality. However, provided that key features of a person's identity structure are represented in an instrument, the more detailed features of especial interest to an investigation (say, in relation to gender) may be incorporated within an instrument, whereby these detailed aspects are empirically located in relation to the key features. In principle, another configuration of detailed features (this time, say, in relation to ethnicity) in a parallel identity instrument would provide similarly derived empirical placement to the key features. In other words, while there is no pretence that the totality of a person's identity structure and processes could be ascertained, there is a reliable procedure whereby valid information about investigative aspects of identity can be derived. See also discussion in Chapter 2 of Analysing Identity concerning the resolution of the stasis/flux and etic/emic assessment dilemmas.

Primary errors in generating identity instruments

An identity instrument for the assessment of identity processes at a particular phase in time may be viewed in abstraction as a structured matrix of entities and constructs, where the foremost structure is given in terms of the primacy of the most significant aspects of self as reference points for the assessments of parameters of identity. The minimum structure required, without which the identity parameters cannot be assessed, consists of the designation of an aspirational self, a current self, and a past self. Representation of these three self-entities is mandatory. No ISA parameter of identity can be assessed without them. A further two non-self entities are also mandatory, these being 'an admired person' and 'a disliked person' (in wording of the investigator's choice). These two entities have two purposes: (1) to provide proxies on occasions when anchoring of construct polarity with respect to 'aspirational self' fails; (2) to provide a general validity check on the generated identity instrument, such that 'an admired person' is assessed favourably in comparison to 'a disliked person'. Evidently, an identity instrument is a structured matrix, with tagged mandatory entities, that is specifically geared to the assessment of ISA parameters of identity, and is to be distinguished from unstructured matrices of data points that may be subjected to statistical procedures such as principal components analyses.

Entities: Investigative or substantive purpose of a study.
A sample of entities of primary significance to the individual is necessary to provide a general framework for the substantive issues to be elucidated as determined by the investigator. Without a proper balance of the 'primary' and 'substantive' entities, there will inevitably be a distortion in assessment of identity processes, as when the people and events of greatest importance in the person's biographical experience are omitted - ones that provide the overall context for the person's sense of identity.

In principle, the ISA conceptual framework is all encompassing in its conception of an individual's identity structure and processes. In practice, of course, it is never possible to assess all aspects of any person's identity, so any assessment will be directed to those aspects that are especially salient for the purpose of an investigation. Such 'purpose' is however always against the background of the person's totality of identity. It is therefore imperative that significant background elements of the person's identity are included in assessment so that the investigative purpose (the substantive interest of a study) may be placed in the context of the person's overall identity structure and purposes. In any customised identity instrument a rule of thumb is that around 50&percent; of the instrument should tap into the person's wider social context of biographical experiences, and that the investigative purpose should account for no more than about 50&percent;. A fundamentally important feature of this rule of thumb is that it allows for the significance of the investigative purpose to be kept in perspective by comparison with the broader aspects of the person's identity processes (i.e., the mistake that the investigative purpose is necessarily the primary issue for the person is obviated). Typical entities are likely to be parents, or parental figures, siblings, extended family, school staff and school-age peers, friends and enemies, work colleagues, politicians, celebrities, etc., some of which will be contextualised (e.g., 'My colleague after being disabled in a severe accident', 'My colleague before his accident').

Entities may also be images, such as photos of people and institutions, or video clips of events, or be represented by sign language for deaf people. In visual cultures representation of entities by imagery will provide a quality of directness unattainable otherwise.

Entities: The singular self, self-concept and public self
Recall that the singular self (Self 1) is not amenable to direct assessment, but is the agent that appraises the social world and reflects on self's experience of being and acting therein (hence, aspects of self-concept, Self 2's, and public self, Self 3's). Since identity includes the person's biographical experience of others, a common error is to consider that, in matters of identity, the person's self-concept is the issue under investigation, when in fact the person's identity is located within a nexus of other people and various agencies. As a rule of thumb, not less than 50&percent; of an identity instrument should relate to the nexus of others, so that not more than 50&percent; should encompass aspects of self.

'Self entities' will reference the 'self' situated or contextualised in various ways ('me with my best friend', 'me when threatened by ... ..', 'me when I behave out of character', 'me as my boss sees me', and so on [Analysing Identity, Chapter 2]

Constructs: Iconic features of identity
The basic consideration for generating appropriate constructs is to focus on discourses that represent, on the one hand, features that are 'aspirationally iconic' for the person's sense of being in the world and, on the other hand, those that are 'iconically problematic'. Aspirationally iconic features are those towards which the person aspires as being central to one's very existence as an individual meaningfully located within one's social milieu (such as kith and kin, immediate circle of acquaintances, wider social, cultural and political environment). Iconically problematic ones are those that constitute ongoing dilemmas associated with attempting to fulfil one's needs within one's social milieu and one's location within that milieu (such as issues to do with honour, integrity, ethical dilemmas and competing desires).

Invariably, one's gender, one's ethnicity, one's nationality, one's occupations, and other major socially defined attributes will, depending on circumstances, be iconic features of one's overall identity. Some such iconic features will be 'stories' of one's life. So the question becomes one of identifying those most significant iconic features - which will depend on individual consciousness at various phases of the life-cycle, which is best achieved through ethnographic interviews or case histories.

On issues such as national identity, there will various iconic emblems of nationality (such as for British identity, Nelson's column, 'tolerance', ... ...), which will vary from person to person such that a variety of iconic representations will be recognisably 'British' without there necessarily being explicit commonalities, rather there being an aura of Britishness that includes a vast arena of historical and contemporary elements, depending on one's immediate social milieu and ancestral heritage (such as from other European countries, the Indian subcontinent, the Caribbean, Africa, etc.).

Constructs: Discourses and non-verbal expressions
As with entities, discourses about the investigative issue should not overwhelm the content of an identity instrument. Other discourses should tap into general issues of relevance to the individual. With a range of entities, it is rare to find that any specific bipolar construct has relevance in respect of every entity. Specific discourses may be appropriate when appraising certain entities, but not others. Other discourses may relate to another set of entities. Whatever the case may be for the differing relevance of discourses across entities, there has to be assurance that to each entity there is at least some potentially relevant discourses. Constructs may also be non-verbal expressions, such as visual gestures signifying '... is ordering compliance', '... is offering friendship', '... is showing contempt', and so on.

A dominant feature of a psychometric scale for a psychological factor (such as: self-esteem, or introversion) is the selection of several items that, while worded differently, assess the one factor. By contrast, an ISA identity instrument that incorporated several such items would seriously overload assessment on a narrow dimension at the expense of allowing other potentially salient features to emerge. Opportunities for sampling the breadth of identity issues, using diverse discourses, should be given priority over repeated stabs at a single issue.

Sentences, texts and non-verbals: Semantics and grammar
In ISA an identity instrument is not a questionnaire, nor is it a psychometric scale. No questions are posed. No set of items making up a scale is included. Instead the opportunity is provided for the participant to appraise self interacting in the social world in terms of discourses and non-verbal expressions of varying degrees of complexity. Entity-discourse combinations should be semantically in sentence format, such as: 'subject' - 'verb' - 'predicate'. Combinations of images as entities and non-verbal displays as constructs should provide a visually compelling 'grammar'. Mixed imagery and discourse combinations should likewise be evocative.

Using the vernacular: Cultural and age sensitivities
ISA instruments are customised to the everyday language or vernacular used by the participant. The objective is to generate an instrument that is in the realm of comprehension by the person who is appraising self and the social world. Whatever the formal complexity of the instrument, as required by the investigation, the 'language' of the instrument will need to be comprehensible to the user. Piloting of a draft instrument is therefore essential, so as to ensure its appropriateness for cultural background and age of the participant.

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